Content warning: contains mentions of suicide ideation
When I was 24, and suicidal, my psychologist told me I was possessed by demons. “We need to look at demonic entry points,” she said. Those words, and the sinking feeling that accompanied them, remain etched in my mind well over a decade later.
Like most people, I started seeing a psychologist when I was at the lowest point in my life. I was 22, and had recently moved to Melbourne. I married young, and had just started to realise that the marriage I was in was marred by strong emotional and religious control. I was isolated, and felt terrified of the bleakness my future held. I was also coming to terms with the difficulties of a range of childhood traumas. I started seeing Carol* to help manage all of this. I knew enough about psychology, to know that I needed to seek out someone well qualified to manage complex difficulties - in this case, a trained clinical psychologist. I was reassured by the testimonials on her website and her self-assurance and confidence were a soothing counter-weight to my own lack of situation in the world.
Our first session was somewhat typical. Somewhat – because she asked me a range of questions about my parent’s religious beliefs.
Our first session was somewhat typical. Somewhat – because she asked me a range of questions about my parent’s religious beliefs. Odd, but I did not think too much of it at the time. I was not religious myself, though I was trying to understand the religious system and control I had found myself entangled within. She engaged in these conversations wholeheartedly and told me that she was Christian. Over time, she spoke at length about the limited help clinical psychology could offer trauma victims, beyond supporting them to “limp along”. She spoke with fervour of the need for Jesus to find true healing and about a range of increasingly odd concepts, including demonic possession, beliefs that engagement in a range of ungodly activities (such as yoga) could allow demonic manifestation, and the belief that any trauma caused the psyche to splinter into ‘parts’ (alter-egos) —requiring the acceptance and presence of Jesus for resolution. She invited me to her church. She encouraged me to seek the love of god, despite my insistence that I was there for secular therapy. Eventually, I ‘converted’ to Christianity. Looking back, I have no doubt that seeking her approval was one of the main reasons I did so.
I saw Carol for two years, sometimes weekly, sometimes twice-weekly. She also provided some ‘regular’ therapy, including helping me reframe and understand some of my experiences and supporting me to manage distress, and smoothed my way through the first few difficult years after my marriage. She was a firm, confident and caring presence when I most needed someone on my side. No one tells you about the deep attachment you form to a therapist, no one warns you that this attachment can pull you in and keep you embedded in something that hurts far more than it heals. By the time I had started seeing Carol, I had been hurt often. I was looking for someone to anchor to, and I found it. Our therapy continued for a while, until her conversations about god and demons became more frequent and pressing. I started to see that our therapy needed to end, and I was distraught.
As Carol used our sessions to talk about god, my anxiety and depression remained unaddressed and spiralled, compounded by a terror of the conversation I knew was looming. Eventually, I became very suicidal, and finally told her during that final dreadful session. She said that we needed to look at demons, and eventually sent me home with a simple breathing exercise to do.
As Carol used our sessions to talk about god, my anxiety and depression remained unaddressed and spiralled, compounded by a terror of the conversation I knew was looming.
It was difficult to know what to do. Therapeutic sexual boundary violations are well known and spoken about, but what happened to me was subtler and harder to define. My general practitioner (GP) offered to speak to her. I was terrified, and said no. I found myself another therapist, someone gentle and ethical, who listened more than she spoke. Eventually, my suicidality abated and the injustice of what had happened felt too big to ignore. I took the step of making a formal notification to the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency (AHPRA). This process was psychologically difficult. I needed to understand and think about what had occurred in detail, so I could articulate it during the complaints process. While everyone involved was understanding and listened to me with compassion, it was clinical and detached, and a long process. It took two years and provided Carol with a number of opportunities to deny what occurred, and to blame me and my ‘pathology’ for the spiral of the therapy. I was on the stand, and I didn’t want to be. My current therapist and GP supported me through this process, as I cried in their offices, read responses from Carol and then drafted my own rebuttals.
Eventually, AHPRA upheld my concern. Carol was reprimanded and ordered to engage in supervision. I was relieved by the finding. I’d taken a stance for myself, but I also did it to protect her other clients, who may not have understood enough about psychology or had the strength to go through the whole complaints process. I was grateful that I was able to find a measure of justice, and with my mental health intact.
A few years after this, I met another one of Carol’s clients by chance. Over dinner, while I spoke about my own bad therapy experiences, she identified herself to me.
She told me that she struggled so much with Carol’s therapy that she was admitted to an inpatient unit. She had been too young, and too unwell to go through the offical process of raising a notification. I was sad that this happened to her, and was so glad that I had spoken up, instead of walking away. We don’t often get a chance to see the difference we have made in the world by fighting for justice, but that day I did.
*Name changed for privacy.
Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Pathways to notification:
Mental Health Complaints Commissioner (public health practitioners only): https://www.mhcc.vic.gov.au
Health Complaints Commissioner: https://hcc.vic.gov.au